President Barack Obama's decision to abandon the proposal to develop Yucca Mountain as a repository for high-level nuclear waste has left the United States with "status quo" as the only current alternative plan for nuclear-waste storage and disposal.
Essentially, that means the waste has to stay put, right where it was created and is now stored--at more than 100 nuclear reactors nationwide, plus current and former nuclear weapons production facilities and military bases with nuclear-powered ships. That situation is causing concern among many politicians and their constituents as well as officials in the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industries, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers.
"We don't want to become a long-term repository without even having a discussion," said Gary Petersen of the Tri-City Industrial Development Council, near Hanford, Wash., in an interview with reporter Les Blumenthal of McClatchy. "All of this waste is supposed to be going to Yucca. Without Yucca, everyone in the weapons complex has a problem."
When Obama pulled the plug on Yucca Mountain back in February--fulfilling a campaign pledge--he promised to set up a federal commission to study the problem and develop a new nuclear-waste plan. So far, that commission has not been appointed.
Here is the problem:
- There is a lot of radioactive nuclear waste temporarily stored at sites all over the country.
- Leaving nuclear waste in place and transporting it to some central and supposedly secure location both pose public safety and national security risks.
- Nuclear waste can remain toxic, and potentially lethal, for 100,000 years or more (roughly equivalent to the length of time between the emergence of modern Homo sapiens and today), and no one knows whether we can safely store radioactive waste for that long.
- America is not going to stop producing nuclear energy and nuclear weapons; both are considered far too important to our national security.
- Nobody wants the waste, making nuclear-waste disposal one of the most controversial NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) issues in history.
There are already about 63,000 tons of used radioactive fuel at 104 operating U.S. nuclear power plants; it is currently stored either underwater or in so-called "dry storage." Waste from nuclear weapons production, dating back to World War II, is an even bigger problem. It is currently stored at 16 federal sites in 13 states, although most of it is at Hanford in Washington state, the Idaho National Laboratory and Savannah River in South Carolina.
Quoting from the McClatchy article:
"At Hanford alone, there are 53 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste, 2,100 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and nearly 2,000 capsules containing radioactive cesium and strontium.
"The biggest concern has been the liquid waste, stored in aging and occasionally leaking underground tanks. Current plans call for the waste to be vitrified, or solidified into glass-like logs, and shipped to Yucca Mountain. The logs would be encapsulated in two-foot diameter, 14.5-foot-long stainless steel containers that would weigh about four tons each. The waste treatment plant would generate about 480 glass logs a year and somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 by the time the last of the waste is processed.
"The waste treatment plant is scheduled to start producing glass logs in 2019. Yucca was scheduled to open sometime after 2020."
Yucca Mountain probably isn't the answer--it was always more of a political solution than a scientific one--but neither is "business as usual" with no effective backup plan. If Obama wants to eliminate one alternative for handling America's nuclear waste, then he needs to move aggressively to develop another, more workable solution.